Sunday, 1 April 2012


In December, Delhi usually gets quite chilly. But last year, the weather was exceedingly strange. Most of December was so warm that I didn’t need to wear socks or even loosely wrap a shawl. One night, however, it rained.  The next day, Friday, was bleak; no sun and the chill seemed to seep in. I wrapped up well but couldn’t adapt quickly enough to this unpredictable weather. I had the sniffles that night. Did the usual ministrations to prevent a full blown cold but the symptoms didn’t totally disappear. I pushed myself to do yoga the next morning. I had overslept and felt very lethargic, but slowly got myself together and actually managed the full regimen which always makes me feel really good; in control. 
Kantha from Bangladesh approx 1970-80's
But later, I felt sluggish again, so decided to drink some masala chai with adrak, Tulsi and Echinacea, combining them with the other spices that make up the regular masala. Adrak heats up the body temperature, Tulsi, with its anti-oxidant properties boosts the immune system and Echinacea is also good for colds. I could have done some mudras to raise the body temperature, exercises to activate the thymus, as I did the  evening before, but sometimes all this doing really becomes tedious. How much healing can I do? Why do I have to get a cold, when there is so much to be done? Spend the whole day pandering to whatever emotional need was creating this dis-ease in my system? Trying to balance oneself through each day, between ideals, aspirations and the practical aspects of living,   means looking at everything with a fine toothcomb and sometimes it gets to me.

 I needed some creative intervention, so added finishing touches to the embroidery I had been working on; a portrait of Jehangir, the child who works at a tea stall in Palam Vihar. This had taken quite a while to complete and the process had been thought provoking too.  It was challenging to bring, the gamut of my experience of engaging with this boy, into a visual context. I had taken digital photographs, worked with Photoshop on them, then had these images digitally printed onto fabric.  

 The ideas that emerged from my experience did not convey lushness or a comfortable feeling. So I opted to use fabric that had an everyday quality; not glossy or expensive.  I used muslin and markeen for the digital printing, layered the images in multiples of three; one on markeen [as the base] and two on mul. I then stitched these layers together with a loose running stitch, like those used in ‘kantha’ embroidery of Bengal.  I feel a bit odd appropriating its name and associations when my usage has no direct relationship to the tradition, but I do like the idea of what I am doing being rooted in such a rich tradition of crafting. I recollect reading about Kantha, or Sujni as it is called in Bihar, for the first time in the early 1980s. The India Magazine carried a story about how women used old and worn-out dhotis, worn by men, and sometimes sarees, to make quilts; stitching together three or more layers of this well-worn and softened fabric with a running stitch and sometimes a back stitch too. I have been fascinated ever since, but incorporated this technique in my own work, just five or six years ago.
I love the rugged quilted look that comes from binding layers of soft, well-worn material together. Depending upon the distance between the rows of stitches and the thickness of the layers, the texture is quirky and unpredictable, augmenting the narrative such that form or colour alone could not. The women of Bihar and Bengal create lush, naive imagery with this technique; embroidering stories around religious myths and their own lives, depicting daily and festive rituals, often finishing the work with woven borders cut out of old sarees. I work in my own way, not really drawing upon these traditional practices. I tally the colour of my thread with the colours on the printed fabric, changing as needed, to match the colour modulation of the printed image, but I use the thread-work to bring out the features of people, utensils, kettles, tea cups and the stains in them. I watch what emerges intuitively and then orchestrate the technique, threads, colour and textures to bring out qualities that are evocative of my thoughts and feelings about the person or situation.

Jehangir was a difficult task. How could I convey my frustrations, limitations, guilt and concern without overriding this young boy’s courage, or the spirit with which he and others like him accepted their life and its travails with grace? To me, he seemed so grown up, so unlike the children of more wealthy and privileged parents. At his young age of ten or so, he was taking responsibility for his family, working to provide food and shelter, assisting his parents in doing so. How many of us have had to do this at ten?
I was about the same age when I learned cross-stitch embroidery.  A birthday gift-set of some fabric and designs to embroider had me spend many hours, during school holidays that winter, doing this. Cross stitch is not part of the popular repertoire of traditional Indian embroidery but, just like its more natural for me to speak the English language than write or converse in Hindi, cross stitch is also ‘native’ to my fingers. I once tried to transfer a well-known Indian miniature painting of a ‘nayika’ in a red dress, seated on a bed of white flowers waiting for her lover, onto fabric, using cross stitch. I gave up after a year because I had chosen too fine a count of fabric, and had barely managed to complete one-third of the whole picture in this time.

There’s something very fascinating about the process of embroidering a picture using squares. This breaks down the figure not unlike the pixels of a digital image. The cross-stitch method uses fabric that has little squares, demarcated with dots for easy insertion of the needle. The square is then defined by means of a thread that crosses itself, diagonally, going in and out of the four holes. There are many variables of this fabric called Aida or cross-stitch matte, manufactured specifically for this type of embroidery. The varieties you get in Delhi are very coarse as cross-stitch is not popular, so I have to go to great lengths to get the fabric I need. The latest purchase was on-line from a store in Australia, where I paid an exorbitant amount for it, primarily because of the cost of sending it all the way to India. However, I love the patterns you can make using this fabric; and the ordered manner in which these are executed, appeals to my inherent need for order.

Woman's dress, Paksh
from Baluchistan,
Pakistan, late C19th,
cross-stitch used
among other
embroidery stitches

This language of thread, using a traditional stitch like ‘Kantha’ along with     the adopted ‘tradition’ of cross stitch, makes me marvel at how customs from diverse cultures have become part of my own. I have no idea about the origin of cross-stitch and how it permeated the Indian psyche. Everyone I asked assumed it must be related to the influence of Christian missionaries or a more direct, colonial fall-out. I had gone to an Irish Catholic, convent school so am familiar with how much of the culture they brought with them has unquestioningly percolated into our lives. When did they come to India? Did the practice of cross-stitch really come through them or was there some other link? I did some quick research, and discovered few examples of cross-stitch in garments from Hissar, Bihar, Sindh and Baluchistan. Most were folk and tribal dresses from around the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Kasuti, which is done in Karnataka, also uses the spaces between warp and weft threads, counting them, to create geometric patterns but, as yet, I have not found out how this technique came to the sub-continent or why it remains on the periphery of the embroidery practices for which India is renowned.
skirt fabric, mid C20th, Kutch, Gujarat
 or Sindh Pakistan
Embroidered woollen shawl, Hissar,
Haryana,  [cross stitch] c.1880

Sipping my tea, warming my hands as I held the round white cup, I started thinking on another tangent - of the larger socio-political influences.  Was it possible that ideas governing our attitude to life, ourselves and to people like Jehangir, today, were derived like cross-stitch, from cultures that had seeped into ours through centuries of invasion and rule by foreigners, but were technically not Indian?  How relevant is this question of identity, the origin of things? I mean what’s relevant, is what is, right? The much touted spiritual mantra of the day, of living in the present moment, seems to contradict my quest to study the past but this mystery, whodunit trail is just too fascinating to pass up on.  

The investigation may lead to nothing, or to some nebulous, unintelligible idea or infinitely, unrealistic possibilities, but the process of examining how things came into being; what came from where, when and how and the possibility of their influence on my thinking, intrigues me. Unravelling these threads doesn’t just fuel my curiosity, it lends purpose to being. It’s as if I am becoming acquainted with the dots or squares or pixels, as it were, that paint the larger picture of me. Inspired by this criss-cross of threads from the past, I return to look at the thoughts I’d earlier neglected to examine, which had brought on the sniffles.
Contemporary Sujni, Bhusara, Bihar, 2005


  1. I received this response by email and thought I would post it on her [shamlu's] behalf.

    Great to read good stuff from you. Y kno dat Kantha is d intangible cultural heritage of undivided Bengal, centuries b4 any1 had thought of partition.

    Bt v r now in India, so Y Kantha frm "Bangla Desh" whn there's such gud kantha in Bengal? Kantha, in its currently known format, is essentially Bengal ... So, why Orissa before Bengal?

    Kantha was a poor man's quilting stitch, used to recycle old textiles,...the stitch that the tailor bird took to 'sew' 2 leaves together 2 build a nest, or the caveman took to sew 2 pieces of animal skin together, to hide his nakedness. has bn elevated to decorative stitch for textiles, through dedication n ingenuity of poor rural women of Bengal, with barely a couple of hours free after their lunch. A lunch break became an 'art with a heart' break, when they created textiles of unparalleled beauty, never to be repeated,

    Lately, these Kantha textiles have been elevated to the portals of stitch art, able to share wall space in an art gallery, along with fine art. Recently, riding piggy back on Tagore's 150th birth anniversary, the panels which have further elevated Kantha to an art form, are based on themes from Tagore tales...a new level, hitherto unimaginable concept for the humble running stitch. Conceptualised by me. These expositions, starting at the Raj Bhavan Kolkata, in Feb, 2011, have travelled to several cities such as Cairo, Copenhagen, The Hague, Dhaka and London, on to Berlin next month. And have received huge accolades.

    Cross stitch, on the other hand, was a rich woman's leisure pleasure! Embroidered on new fabric with a definite texture suitable for cross stitch, which comprises of two Kantha stitches taken perpendicular to each other, (for a tea cosy, a table cloth or a cushion cover, or indeed a piece of tapestry).... and the patterns and colours are taken from a design and colour palette already created for this work. It lacks positive vibes....of a unique, unprecedented, unpreplanned Kantha tapestry.

    Kantha, on the other hand, is a 4-dimensional work. It has the 3 dimensions, with the added dimension of magic and positive vibes, which are instilled in the textiles by the sensitivity of the rural artisans.

    The two cannot be compared.

    Shamlu Dudeja []

  2. Hi this is alka mathur an artist who is also absorbed,involved and exploring TEA and The Kantha stitch. Interesting to see your work and share your thoughts. Maybe we could meet up sometime. My e-mail is and website